Insurgent Theory in Times of Crisis: Dani Wadada Nabudere’s The Political Economy of Imperialism

Dani Wadada Nabudere (1932-2011) was a prolific Marxist-Leninist, Pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist scholar, freedom fighter, lawyer and politician whose knowledge production was firmly rooted in his extensive and diverse political experience. It is remarkable that he is not more renowned worldwide given his stature. It is hard to make sense of a figure like Nabudere in today’s academic context that is dominated by professionalism or claims to political purity on the one hand, and institutional policing and a capitalist-imperialist driven political economy of publishing on the other. His unapologetic materialist analysis and clear writing are refreshing given the obscurity of so many contemporary scholarly texts. Nabudere took real material as well as physical risks, and seemed driven by Mao’s maxim that ‘all genuine knowledge originates in direct experience’ and the only way to know the ‘theory and methods of revolution’ is to take part in making it, even if that means making mistakes.

In addition to his scholarly writings and academic positions across the African continent, including at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), University of Zimbabwe, and the Marcus Garvey Pan-African Institute (Uganda), which he founded, Nabudere had a long and complicated history as an activist, from student organizing to armed insurrection and institutionalized politics. For this alone, Nabudere’s scholarly works should be revisited as they are informed directly by praxis. Nabudere’s empirically and theoretically rich body of work should also be studied for what it can tell us about contemporary manifestations of imperialism – particularly in Africa – and how to resist them.

A Political Biography

Nabudere first became involved in politics as a student in London in 1961, where he was a member of the Executive Committee of the anti-colonial United Kingdom Uganda Students Association (UGASA) together with Yash Tandon and other prominent Ugandan Marxists and Pan-Africanists. Nabudere returned to Uganda in 1964 and was involved with the nationalist Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), although his Marxist ideology clashed with that of the leadership and resulted in his marginalization and eventual expulsion in 1965. He went on to engage in more grassroots forms of organizing, helping to establish the Uganda Vietnam Solidarity Committee ‘to oppose the American war of aggression against the Vietnamese people,’ as well as the first Maoist party in Uganda.

Nabudere’s relationship with Idi Amin’s government followed a similar trajectory, with initially good relations turning sour after he protested Amin’s brutality.1He was appointed Chairman of the Board of Directors of the East African Railways. He eventually resigned from the government and moved to Tanzania, where he co-founded the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) and even engaged in armed struggle for a short period. With significant support from the Tanzanian army, the UNLF eventually brought down the Amin government.  This was also the period, as Tandon details, when Nabudere’s Pan-Africanism and internationalism were further forged, as he and the UNLF ‘made far-reaching contacts’ with other revolutionary movements in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

He participated in the ‘first turbulent year’ of the UNLF government, although it was not long before Nabudere was in exile again, as the UNLF government was overthrown in a military coup in May 1980. Together with other compatriots he went to Nairobi, and eventually moved to Denmark, where he would spend several years as a high school teacher. He returned to Uganda in 1993 and briefly joined the US-backed Museveni government, although that position was short-lived, after which he became an outspoken critic of the government. Tandon, his longtime friend and comrade, recalls that ‘Nabudere was a Marxist scholar and practitioner to his bones’ and ‘was not dogmatic in political tactics.’

Despite his political activity, Nabudere still found time to research and publish. He has an impressive list of publications, many of which intersect with ongoing critical themes in economics and development studies, including The Rise and Fall of Money Capital (1990), Essays on the Theory and Practice of Imperialism (1979), Imperialism in East Africa (1980), and the subject of this review: The Political Economy of Imperialism (1977). Through these works, Nabudere contributed to the development of a political economic analysis of ‘African social formations’ not only empirically, but also theoretically, as Zeyad el Nabolsy argues, to ‘the refinement and… development of Marxist-Leninism.’2Zeyad el Nabolsy, ‘The Leninist Legacy in East Africa: Abdul Rahman Mohammed Babu and Dan Wadada Nabudere,’ (Unpublished Chapter, 2019), 22.

Nabudere was central to a generation of radical scholars who would challenge the epistemological and pedagogical underpinnings of the colonial African university, and who participated in the famous ‘University of Dar es Salaam debates’ on ‘socialism, social emancipation, underdevelopment and imperialism,’ in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. His contributions were particularly critical to contesting the Eurocentrism of the social sciences, demanding instead a disciplinary approach that would ‘reflect the African context and conditions.’ Although the Dar es Salaam scholars were for the most part much more at ease with the Marxist-Leninist analytical framework than their contemporaries from the ‘decolonial school’, their work nevertheless prefigured the methodological and epistemological concerns that are central to the latter, as they stressed the importance of ‘interpret[ing] African history from an African viewpoint and epistemology rather than from the viewpoint of the colonizers’.3Dani Wadada Nabudere, ‘Research, Activism, and Knowledge Production,’ In Eds. Charles R. Hale and Craig Calhoun, Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship (University of California Press, 2008), 68.

The creation of the African Association of Political Science (AAPS) in 1973 emerged out of this formation, with Nabudere as one of its earliest presidents. The AAPS included other Pan-African luminaires such as Okwudiba Nnoli, Emmanuel Hansen, Mahmood Mamdani, Yash Tandon and Helmi Sharawi. As Tandon explained, Nabudere was a foremost proponent of AAPS’s pan-Africanist orientation who ‘showed how the social sciences as ideological expressions of dominant classes faced a crisis of relevance in Africa, and how these needed to be challenged.’ Influenced by Paolo Friere, Nabudere’s later work was much more concerned with ‘emancipatory and liberatory pedagogy’. He sought to ‘connect institutions of higher learning to the knowledge generated in communities’ as part of the ‘struggle for self-determination’ and a ‘bottom-up’, participatory model of knowledge production. His work in establishing the Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute in Mbale in Uganda was an institutional expression of this insurgent pedagogy, as it aimed to ‘highlight African indigenous knowledge as a source of valuable human achievement by mainstreaming it through rediscovery, research, and recognition.’4Nabudere, ‘Research, Activism, and Knowledge Production,’ 83.

Knowledge in the Service of Liberation

Although The Political Economy of Imperialism is less concerned with questions of pedagogy, it shared with Nabudere’s other projects a theoretical commitment to liberation. Written at the dawn of neo-colonial structural adjustment, the book is impressive not only for the breadth and depth of its historical assessment and the sharpness of its analysis, but for its foresight as well. Wedded to a stadial analysis, the book begins with the dissolution of the Roman Empire and transition from production based on (pre-modern) slavery to feudalism, and from mercantilist imperialism to competitive capitalism. Nabudere employs a Marxist interpretation of crisis to explain the transitions within capitalism, initially to monopoly and finance imperialism and finally to what he describes as ‘multilateral imperialism’.

It was the transition to monopoly and finance imperialism, as Nabudere described it, that resonates most with the current moment as it engendered the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy following WWI. Nabudere’s insight is that ‘fascism came into assist monopoly capitalism by smashing all the bourgeois individual democratic rights and institutions in order to protect the bourgeoisie as a class against the possibilities of socialist revolution’; it is helpful for explaining the rise of blatantly fascist heads of state like Trump, Bolsanaro and Modi.5Dani Nabudere, The Political Economy of Imperialism: Its theoretical and polemical treatment from mercantilist to multilateral imperialism (Zed press, 1978), 37. However, his historical materialist analysis helps us to move beyond liberal ideology’s emphasis on individuals and instead shed light on the structural causes of the crisis and capital’s response.

Nabudere’s analysis also encourages us to think about how fascism already exists under the imperialist system, and that it requires consistent state violence to maintain racialized exploitation and value extraction in both the centre and periphery. The racist police and carceral state work to maintain social order in the former, whereas in the latter, there are the ‘puppet armies… trained and equipped with modern NATO weapons and maintained on US and other imperialist official aid’ and are ‘held up by the petty- bourgeois regimes’ to prevent the emergence of ‘revolutionary forces of national liberation and socialist construction’. Despite the enormous depth and reach of imperialist tentacles, Nabudere’s dialectical approach to history combined with a revolutionary praxis demonstrate a profound belief in the possibility of radical transformation.

Contributions to Understanding and Resisting Late-Stage Imperialism

Nadubere’s most important empirical and theoretical contributions emerge from his analysis of crisis. In Marxist fashion, he holds that crises are at the heart of the major transitions within the global capitalist economy. The first such transition was in 1870, at a time when the consolidation of the ‘liberal state’ and significant population growth were taking place, and when the capitalist system experienced a historical fall in the rate of profit. This was partly a result of industrial development, which required an expansion of foreign markets. As el Nabolsy points out, what distinguishes Nabudere’s analysis from much Marxist-Leninist political economy is the importance it ascribes to Marx’s ‘basic law of motion of capitalism’ (or ‘the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’) to explain the economic imperative behind imperialism. This process ‘could only be reversed by increased supplies of cheap raw and auxiliary materials, expanding markets, and lower wages, which implied an intensification of the exploitation of labor.’6Ibid., 77. Together with the domination of finance capital, which was the result of a merger of industrial and bank capital, these changes birthed ‘modern imperialism’.

The new financial oligarchy that emerged from this transition went on to divide ‘the remaining uncolonised world among monopoly concerns and big imperialist states.’ As a result, the capitalists were able to restore the high rate of surplus-value and hence high rate of profit, as well as finish the process of linking all countries of the world in one economy. Yet in dialectical tradition, Nabudere analyzes how the horizons of monopoly imperialism were soon ‘narrowed… by the emergence of the socialist system that was marked by the October Revolution.’7Ibid., vii.

The next major capitalist crisis resulted in World War II and exacerbated the contradictions between the imperialist countries, ‘leading to a devastating destruction of the productive forces among vanquished and victors alike.’8Ibid., vii. This crisis served as a cypher for the consolidation of US imperial power under the guise of ‘free trade’ and ‘multilateralism’. The US’s ‘new imperialist policy of redivision’ – i.e., the ‘Open Door’ strategy – was intended to solve ‘the problem of liberalised trade and the mobilisation of capital for ‘reconstruction’.9Ibid., vii, 147. This could not be done with the ‘closed markets, closed sources of raw materials and closed outlets for capital exports that existed in the inter-war years.’ The US subsumption of British and French colonial possessions based on ‘closed markets, closed sources of raw materials’ was achieved by a multi-pronged approach; ‘namely by creating trade, monetary, financial and political institutions’ under the domination of US imperialism.10Ibid., 147.

Nabudere grasped very early on the central role of international financial institutions in providing a cover for imperialist interests and providing transnational corporations with the illusion of diffuse power through a discourse of global value chains – while continuing to enable imperialist modes of accumulation based on the transfer of value from the periphery to the imperialist core. Under ‘multilateral imperialism’, what appears as ‘transactions between nations and separate ‘national enterprises’ was in actuality ‘transactions between units of the same monopolies.’ [38] Rather than the diffusion of power and wealth, what this era actually witnessed was ‘the increasing concentration of production and capital, which is the sole means by which a transnational corporation can maintain its profitability amidst the intensified competition in the world market by monopolies’ – with US-owned multinational corporations as the greatest beneficiaries.11Ibid., vii.

Nabudere goes on to explain the central role of the IMF in maintaining imperialism ‘as a financial arm of the multilateral arrangement that has wielded the real big stick, enforcing monetary and financial discipline according to the dictates of monopoly capitalism.’12Ibid., 260. As a result of imperialist domination, ‘any “advice” rendered by the IMF to the neo-colony represents monopoly interests.’13Ibid., 260. Crucial from the perspective of current discussions of medical imperialism is Nabudere’s analysis of the role of patents, intellectual property law and unequal sovereignty. He explains how the neo-colonies are forced, ‘upon the attainment of their formal political independence’ and as part of their ‘new international status’, to ‘subscribe to the objectives of the International Union for the Protection of Industrial Property under whose convention they are obliged to protect the patent rights of foreign monopolies’ – meaning they are, ‘of course, monopoly “rights”.’ As such, they are an imperialist rent that facilitates accumulation in the centre.14Ibid., 250.

Rather than approaching neo-colonial states as independent entities engaged in negotiations with imperialist institutions and multinational corporations (a perspective that obscures profoundly unequal power relations), this political economy of imperialism demystifies what is in fact monopoly domination. Referencing agreements like the Lomé Convention of 1975, Nabudere contends that ‘the national bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie pride themselves that they are engaged in “bargaining” with the monopolies in order to advance “national development,”’ while in ‘actual fact no such nation exists nor does any “development” take place.’15[17] M. Mamdani and H. Bhagat, ‘Comments on the Political Economy of Imperialism,’ 43 in Debate on class, state & imperialism (Tanzania Publishing House, 1982).16Ibid., 250. On this point, Mamdani and Bhagat charge Nabudere with underestimating the agency of the Global South in achieving improved terms of trade for African producers, for example, which can potentially pose as a serious challenge to imperialist domination and achieve a ‘victory for the Third World.’

Anti-Imperialism and the Global Struggle for Socialism

For Nabudere, the only way to upend to this global system of accumulation through dispossession is through worldwide socialist revolution. Yet, his conceptualization of the revolutionary trajectory in the imperialist centre is limited. It is unclear, for example, how ‘the internationalisation of the class struggle’ will materialize given the gross inequalities in global labor and living standards and the often reactionary role played by the trade unions of the Global North as they seek to defend their privileges.17Dani Nabudere, The Political Economy of Imperialism, 271. Or, how the ‘subjective conditions’ of a proletarian vanguard will come about in the belly of the beast without centering the experiences, needs, leadership and ‘freedom dreams’ of those most oppressed, exploited and dispossessed by racial capitalism and settler colonialism. This reality has been exposed and exacerbated by the health crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted working class Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

Nabudere’s analysis of the prospects for revolution in the ‘colonial, semi-colonial and neocolonial’ countries is more compelling. Although he explained that each context requires ‘class analysis as well as the study of the [specific] concrete material conditions’, as a general rule he insists that revolution in the periphery required that the ‘national question [must be] linked up with the socialist revolution’.18Ibid., 215. Employing Mao’s conceptualization of revolution as a two-phase struggle, Nabudere explains that national democratic revolution on the ‘basis of new democracy’ must be immediately followed by a transformation ‘into a socialist revolution under the leadership of the proletariat’ in order to be successful.19Ibid., vii. His own ideological commitments as well as personal experience with political struggle guide him to conclude that this revolution would be bound to fail in the absence of a clear break with imperialist forces: ‘a revolt against imperialism becomes the only basis… for the national democratic revolution.’20Ibid., 263.

Engaging Nabudere’s Critics

There are shortcomings in Nabudere’s analysis. Most notably, Nabudere failed to center the role of slavery in his history of capitalism – unlike ‘racial capitalism’, which connects capital accumulation and the history of slavery to the ‘mutually constitutive entanglements of racialized and colonial exploitation’. Absent a racial capitalist framework, Nabudere fails to grasp the full extent of super-exploitation, or the ‘gross markup on labor costs… both in the relative sense of above-average rates of exploitation and also, frequently, in the absolute sense of workers paid less than the cost of the reproduction of their labor power’, as a feature of neo-colonial accumulation in the Global South (and among racialised and oppressed communities within the Global North). As a result, Nabudere fails to situate either workers in the periphery, or Black, Indigenous and other racialized workers in the imperialist core as the ‘main force’ of potential revolutionary action, despite the fact that past protagonists of such action have emanated from these communities.

Nabudere’s position on World System and Dependency theory is curious. He criticizes what he calls ‘the neo-Marxist centre-periphery ideology’ as ‘ahistorical and hence unscientific’.21Ibid., vii. He particularly disagrees with Arghiri Emmanuel’s concept of ‘unequal exchange’ in global trade, which renders primitive accumulation an ongoing rather than an historical phenomenon for the Global South, which, for Nabudere, ‘smack[s] of economistic explanations’. For Nabudere, Emmanuel’s stance that the Global South is ‘exploited through the imperialism of trade and not through the imperialism of finance capital,’ is at odds with the correct application of a Marxist-Leninist framework.22Ibid., 225. Instead, Nabudere argues that unequal exchange must be understood as a temporally specific concept, and applied to the early era of primitive accumulation (including slavery and colonial rule), when ‘trade of commodities between Europe and the undeveloped areas of the world [was conducted]… between two different modes of production’.23Ibid., vi. For Nabudere, unequal exchange was also not only geo-politically limited to trade with the colonies, but also relations between developed and underdeveloped European states, as exemplified by a series of British-Portuguese treaties in the seventeenth century, which situated Britain as a net importer of food and primary products and net exporter of textiles, ensuring ‘Portuguese dependence on England and… destroy[ing] her potential to industrialise.’ Ibid., 79.

Yet Nabudere’s critique is firmly rooted in an anti-imperialist perspective shared by the World Systems theorists whom he castigates, specifically acknowledging systematic surplus drain from the Global South and naming the ‘perpetrators of neo-colonialism’ as ‘the US, the European and the Japanese imperialists’ – or what Samir Amin described as the “collective imperialism of the triad.”24Ibid., 216. Thus, Nabudere clearly identifies the Global North to be where imperialism is centered.  Although Nabudere does not see the North-South relationship through the lens of unequal exchange, he acknowledges that the historical record clearly shows that multilateral imperialism has intensified the exploitation of the neo-colonial world through increased capital exports, and thereby increased the political subordination of these countries to the financial oligarchies of the imperialist countries.25Ibid., viii.

What is interesting is that this does not translate into an analysis of the super-exploitation of workers in the periphery. Fundamentally, he sees the global working class as an unvariegated whole, ‘dominated by capital and subjected to capitalist exploitation,’ a position shared by many Second Internationalists.26Ibid., vii. Connected to this was his understanding of the bourgeoisie in the neo-colony as being completely subordinated to capital in the imperialist core. Mahmood Mamdani and Harku Bhagat question whether Nabudere believed a national bourgeoisie existed at all. They claim that its sparse treatment in the book, as well as the use of ‘inverted commas’ when discussing it, demonstrated a failure to grasp what is distinct about this class, even if comprising only a ‘tiny fraction’ of the peripheral bourgeoisie – namely that it derives its wealth from a production based on ‘national resources and the national market,’ and which therefore finds its ‘interests threatened by the imperialist export of capital and commodities.’27M. Mamdani and H. Bhagat, ‘Comments on the Political Economy of Imperialism,’ 47.

In one of his few discussions of slavery, Nabudere insists that Europe’s industrial revolution would not have been possible without ‘the plunder, enslavement, and entombment of the native peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America’. He goes on to argue that the ‘triangular trade’ together with colonialism constituted the two ‘external’ factors that combined with ‘national debt, the mode of taxation, the protectionist system and the overall system of warfare that enhanced and protected it’ to ‘hasten the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist one, and, as in England, shortened the transition’.28Dani Nabudere, The Political Economy of Imperialism, 38. Beyond this analysis though, there is little probing of the history and material legacies of slavery. Such elision recalls the important critique of Marxism by scholars writing from within what Cedric Robinson described as the ‘Black Radical Tradition’, including W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Eric Williams and Oliver Cox. Nabudere shared a normative aim with these scholars, to produce scholarship not just for the purpose of knowledge production, as Peter Hudson asserts, but as ‘an integral part of the modern project of emancipation.’ Yet his conclusions conflict with those of Cox, for example, who chastised Marx for ‘[relegating]’ slavery ‘as subsidiary’ rather than centering it in his study.29Robinson reserved similarly harsh words for what he regarded as Marx’s treatment of slavery as ‘embarrassing residue of a precapitalist, ancient mode of production.’ Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism (Zed Publications, 1983). Also notable for its absence is any discussion of the role of racism, which another renowned insurgent scholar from Nabudere’s Dar El Salaam cohort, Water Rodney, noted was not merely part of the superstructure at the time of Europe’s enslavement and colonization of much of the world, but ‘an integral part of the capitalist mode of production.’

Nabudere spends considerably more time analyzing the primitive accumulation of colonial rule, explaining how Amsterdam became the financial center of Europe as a result of its ‘seafarings earnings and the plunder by the Dutch East India company of Java and Malacca.’ By the seventeenth century, Holland was the leading country in Europe and ‘the guilder was the international currency before the pound was sovereign’.30Dani Nabudere, The Political Economy of Imperialism, 36. The slave trade and colonialism also enabled the deposit resources of the Bank of England to grow ‘by leaps and bounds’ during the closing decades of the eighteenth century and to ‘wrestle’ European and colonial trade away from the Dutch.31Yet Nadudere’s perspective diverges significantly from much of the recent writing on the history of capitalism, especially those authors (e.g., Jairus Banaji) who focus on ‘commercial capitalism’, whereas Nabudere argues that (pre)colonial trade ‘cannot be compared with capitalist accumulation under the capitalist mode of production…where the aim of production is the extraction of surplus- value.’ Ibid., 145.

Nabudere fails to center the history of slavery and its central role not only in jumpstarting capitalism but in fundamentally shaping the racialized stratifications that capitals; here, he was unable to draw parallels between the ‘robbery and plunder’ of primitive accumulation and the super-exploitation of racialized communities today in both the center and periphery. In particular, as Charisse Burden-Stelly explains, of ‘African descendants’ with ‘Blackness… a capacious category of surplus value extraction essential to an array of political-economic functions, including accumulation, disaccumulation, debt, planned obsolescence, and absorption of the burdens of economic crises.’ This gap in Nabudere’s analysis also leads to a lack of attention to the racialized discursive landscape, or what Jemima Pierre labels the ‘racial lexicon of development’, through which Global South wealth drain has been justified and normalized even after the formal independence of peripheral states.

Concluding Remarks

Despite these gaps and tensions, Nabudere’s work stands out and must be appreciated for its foresight and its uncompromising Marxist-Leninist analysis. His book entails the ‘study of the development of human societies in their essentially contradictory movement. It also involves a study of dialectical materialism, which gives us the ‘scientific tools for analysing these contradictory forces.’ He argues this approach is necessary to develop a better understanding of the different modes of production throughout history. He explains that the aim of his work is to ‘form both an ideology for the proletariat, and a scientific exposition of capitalist production at a specific stage of development.’32Ibid., ii.

Although the more controversial aspects of his book require critical engagement, that Nabudere sought global revolution and centered an unapologetic anti-imperialism in his thought and action at a time when imperialist forces were ascendant, and resistance to them – in particular in the imperialist centre – was declining, is reason enough to revisit and celebrate his work. His insurgent knowledge production can provide much needed inspiration, in particular as we face down the latest episode of imperialist-induced crisis.

Corinna Mullin is an anti-imperialist, adjunct professor in the political science, economics, and global studies departments at John Jay and Brooklyn College (CUNY) & The New School.

The author would like to thank Ujju Aggarwal, Louis Allday, Audrey Bomse, Zeyad el Nabolsy and Zhun Xu for taking the time to closely read and provide extremely insightful and helpful feedback and edits to various versions of this article.

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D. Wadada Nabudere